Minimalism is a twentieth-century Western Art music style which explores the limits of Western sound, often combining non-Western elements such as Indonesian gamelan or African polyrhythms with basic Western harmonic structures. Famous music composers who have been labeled as “minimalist” include John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. These composers have been prolific in the minimalist genre and have been pivotal in the musical backlash that occured against the atonal, serialist music of the Fifties.
Minimalist compositions are not simple, despite common notions towards the music genre. Although the name implies the sparse sound that a listener often hears in minimalist works, the minimalist technique is about building on a single chord or scale to explore its many harmonic variations. Building a full-length piece around one or two chords or scales is extremely feasible, and this is aptly demonstrated in John Adams‘ Phrygian Gates (1977), where the whole piece is built upon the Phrygian and Lydian music modes. Harmonic modulation in minimalist pieces usually happens gradually (the music of John Adams is a slight exception), as minimalist music is often concerned with smooth transitions from one harmony to the next. The development of a minimalist piece of music could also be rhythmic, through the gradual integration of two or more rhythms. With this, minimalist music draws influences from the polyrhythms of traditional African percussion music.
The influence of minimalist music is especially undeniable in electronic dance music. Techno music borrows much from minimalist music, with its repeating dance forms and gradual shifts in harmony. In general, the entire genre of Western art music has been influenced by minimalism since the Fifties, stretching the boundaries of harmony and form.
John Adams and Minimalism
John Adams’ music should not be labeled as minimalist. He was born a generation after famous minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and despite minimalism’s audible influences in harmony, such as in the aforementioned Phrygian Gates, Adams described his music as “post-minimalist”, as he does not strictly follow minimalist techniques. His compositions tend to be more directional and climactic, possessing qualities of Romanticism, rather than the smooth soundscapes characterizing those of Philip Glass.